March 19, 2018
“Taking Delight in the Truth of the Psalms and Prophets” ~ Sermon for March 18, 2018 by Fr. Gerald Connors
Taking Delight in the Truth of the Psalms and Prophets, reflected in Jesus’ Compassionate LifeGrace and Peace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.As I thought about what to share with you this morning, this random, though likely telling thought ran across my mind: Forget about any Lenten ideas—yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and as an Anglo Catholic, with a bit of Irish blood, just share a few stories about Patrick.
I suppose this thought came to mind as I still strain to give voice to an inner vision about Jesus’ life that has been knocking on my brain pan for many years. Like most people who found their way to seminary, my vision was shaped by experiences that cried out for healing… For me, those experiences included a bit of childhood trauma in the early ‘60’s when my father, a member of the U.S. Air Force assigned to their nuclear wing, was assigned to a year long Temporary Duty Assignment in Iceland when I was about 3 ½ years old—an experience which created an immense vacuum in my early life. Later on, in my teens, my God child died unexpectedly of crib death. Though I had sensed a call to ministry at a younger age, Charlie’s death was, upon reflection, an integral piece of the Call’s puzzle.
And God does have a sense of humor, because, in the congregation I grew up in close to Sacramento, amongst my contemporaries of the church, had a straw poll been taken about who amongst the crowd would end up in the ministry, I’ve no doubt I would’ve been entirely overlooked. But I’ve never been one for popularity contests, so I obeyed my then perceived calling, making my way to Yale Divinity School in 1980.
Little did I know then that I would ever live in NW CT. But voicing that thought, I jumped across nearly 40 years’ time, and left-out some important steps…
I came to divinity school with high and happy hopes of service and dedication…. While I didn’t lose my faith in the process, the ideas initially presented to us about Biblical studies seemed, to me anyhow, to be a contorted set of conflicting ideas about sources, dates, edits and redactions, not to mention authorship debates about the Holy Scriptures. I thought I was the first to think that the word “exegesis” the study of Biblical texts, was mis-spelt, and really referred to the words “exit” and “Jesus,” slammed together by deranged German theologians.
While I’ve come to put that scholarship, over the years, into a more workable context, I believe that in some measure that many strands of Biblical scholarship have swallowed a wide variety of assumptions that leave the study of Scripture bereft of the useful, life giving intents for which the Early Church strained to produce useful narratives of Jesus’ life, for Jesus’ followers.
Perhaps all of this, so far, seems somewhat abstract.
It’s now time to get a bit specific. I’m an Anglican priest, called to the task of Chaplaincy in a Federal prison, specifically, FCI Danbury. This is the third facility I’ve worked in since I started in Dec. 2010 at FCI McDowell in McDowell County, WV. There I helped to open a new prison. Two years later I transferred up to Berlin, NH where I once again helped to open a new prison. After about 4 ½ years at FCI Berlin, I came to Danbury. While arguably, in some ways, a safer place than the previous facilities I worked in, it’s prison. On any given day, any kind of tension might arise.
Even before entering prison ministry, my work involved connections with the marginalized in society. Because those in our world at the margins experience both set backs as well as advances differently than others in society, early on the theme of suffering took on major significance in my ministry. Because suffering is a category of being most of us avoid, hanging in there with those whom I was appointed to serve managed to change me along the way. I was forced to consider the perspectives of Hispanics in the East End of Bridgeport and parts of Los Angeles, Blacks in the New Haven Newhallville neighborhood, unemployed fisherman on Newfoundland’s South Coast, the Homeless of Chicago and Seattle, and Migrant Farm Workers in the Skagit Valley, North of Seattle.
And now, in my 8th year of Federal Prison Ministry, the ongoing internal dialogue I have about definitions of “good,” “evil,” “sin,” “life,” “death,” and “suffering,” are lively. These topics are lively for me because I experience these issues on a daily basis as I interact with those I am called to serve.
I realize this is a lengthy build-up to what may appear to be a non-existent connection to the theme I have promised to speak on today.
And yet, it’s not!
The Truth of the Psalms and the Prophets in Holy Scripture, be they Jewish or Christian scripture, are rooted in the day-to-day dynamics of flesh-and-blood existence. Reflecting both the ecstatic joys and debilitating conflicts of human existence, the scriptures carry a refreshing, revitalizing message of hope, joy and resurrection amidst the deep ambiguities of life.
A bit less abstract than the seemingly endless debates about the origins of “Q,” the illusive oral traditions proposed as the foundational basis for Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels, let’ start instead with the Gospels themselves. What began to help the scales fall from my eyes in this process was a re-reading of Matthew’s Gospel, with an eye on an event in the early life of the coming together of the Holy Family.
The first few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel tell of miracles, near misses, life saving dreams, and a devastating holocaust, also known as the loss of the Holy Innocents. Some sources estimate the loss of male infant life in Herod’s order to hunt down the child who would be King at about 14,000. The flight into Egypt saved the baby Jesus, and perhaps Mary and Joseph too, and I believe that as Jesus began to grow up, he learned of the early plight of his family.
As Jesus grew, this sacrifice inspired empathy, which in turn gave birth to compassion in his life, which played a part in his ministry. I call the loss of life a sacrifice because I believe Jesus understood those lives lost as sacrificed in his stead. The Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, a holiday known to Jesus as he grew up in synagogue, would enlighten and inspire Jesus in such a manner.
Going past the arguments of whether or not Matthew, Mark, and Luke simply cut and pasted passages from the Hebrew Scriptures to achieve their literary goals, I think it’s better to reflect a moment on the fact that, growing up, Jesus heard the readings of the entire Torah every year. Along with readings and teachings on the Prophets, his reflections of faith developed in a context of compassion for those who suffered physical ailments. as well as those who yearned for the dawning of a new day in Galilee and Jerusalem, where Roman dominance dimmed good ol’- day memories of the great Warrior King David running the show “For Us [Jews] and by Us [Jews].” Jesus must have known both implicitly and explicitly that Israel lacked any sustained resources to battle the might of the entrenched Roman soldiers in his homeland. His witness of dead Zealots, I believe, led him to consider some of the exhortations he expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are those who… Blessed are those who… Blessed are those who…”
These Blessings aren’t pious platitudes, they’re concrete examples of virtues realized amidst a world conflicted by dashed hopes and unrealized dreams. These Blessings are alternative hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom formed, strengthened, and empowered by Jesus’ own faith, a faith not compromised by the earlier expressed entrapments of the devil’s temptations and destructive visions for earthly domination. These Blessings are informed by the groans and sighs of the Psalmists who offered up their shortcomings, as well as their hopes and dreams of lives informed and empowered by YHWH, of a People following YHWH.
How does this all impact my work, my pilgrimage of life and faith? Suffering redeemed, I sense, produces empathy. In my life, I think, in fact I know, that God is the author of such a conversion. According to those whom I serve, the same holds true. I know my shortcomings all too well. Those whom I serve live in the ongoing shadows of the judgments laid against them by society, and by God; it’s simply impractical to languish amidst such heavy a judgment while distracted by speculative abstractions about Biblical scholarship. The message of the Gospel is a message of being Reached, Reconciled and Restored. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of undeniable love, grace, and empowerment, which pushes back the darkness of Satan’s accusations.
My sojourn in life thus far with the least amongst us inspires hope, faith, and patience in me as I see the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit manifest in the lives of those I serve. On a challenging day at work, in a moment or two of frustration, I ask God why I’ve been given the burden of serving His Children. When I have encounters quite similar to the ones Jesus had when those he healed returned and offered thanks, I am restored, and reminded of the Truth inherent in Jesus’s words, “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
I am happy to share further with any of you following the service about the work I am privileged to do.
And, let me close with this thought: I think the “illusive” source of tradition some Biblical scholars seek to explain the form and structure of the Gospels is, in fact, Jesus’ own faithfulness to YHWH, expressed in his life, his ministry, and the deep mystery of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. AMEN.